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Montgomery Mayor and Democrat Bobby Bright speaks to an audience at a manufacturing plant on May 20, 2005, in Montgomery, Ala.
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On a recent trip to the heart of Dixie, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee called Alabama one of the most important battlegrounds in the country — in part, because Democrats are trying to expand their majority in Congress by targeting the Deep South.
After winning special congressional elections in Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this year, Democrats are now running hard in other longtime Republican strongholds, including Alabama.
One competitive race is in the southeast region of the state, where Republicans have won elections since the so-called Goldwater Sweep of 1964 helped crack the once solidly Democratic South.
Bobby Bright, mayor of Montgomery, Ala., is a Democrat running for the seat left open by the retirement of Republican Rep. Terry Everett. The district voted 67 percent for President Bush four years ago, but that doesn't bother Bright.
"The Republican Party has done a great job of painting themselves as the only party that will offer a conservative Christian candidate out there," he says. "But, with my candidacy, the Democrats are doing that, and it's a challenge the Republican Party hasn't had in this district in 44-plus years."
Bright calls himself pro-life, pro-gun and pro-military. He says that's what it will take to revive the Democratic Party in the region.
"The national Democratic Party, they realize that if they're going to make any inroads, if they're going to pierce that conservative Republican veil that has control of the deep heart of the South, they're going to have to recruit and support people with my beliefs: Southern Democrats, conservative Democrats," he says.
Bright is also a deacon at Montgomery's First Baptist Church, as is his Republican opponent, Jay Love. In fact, the candidates sound a lot alike: Both have emphasized their support of tax cuts and Christian values.
Hard To Tell Candidates Apart, Partywise
Mac Gipson is a Republican state representative from Prattville, who says that in Alabama, conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans are not that different.
"We're all cut of the same ilk. George Wallace [was] probably right — not a dime's bit a difference at this level," he says.
Gipson has lived the transformation of Alabama politics, first running for the Legislature as a Democrat because that was the only way to win. He switched parties after the Republican revolution of 1994. Gipson admits the political tide could be turning back.
"2008 is going to be a watershed election in the South," he says. "Democrats have wised up. There's no question about that. They're running better races now than I've seen them run before."
Southern Democrats Emphasizing Autobiography
Part of the new strategy is to have the Democratic candidates define themselves in terms Southern conservatives can relate to. Bright, for instance, has been running an ad that focuses on his biography as a young Alabama child with 13 siblings and a father who was a sharecropper.
This is the kind of political narrative that helps Bright in rural parts of the district. Recently, a Mississippi Democrat with a similar personal story and conservative views won a long-held Republican seat — despite his opponent's effort to link him to national Democratic figures, such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Bright's Republican opponent, Love, is using a similar strategy. His campaign has been running an ad that questions what change will be like. "I'm Jay Love. I'm running for Congress because I want to make sure it's conservative Christian change," his ad says.
Love points out that Bright has received campaign donations from liberal Democrats and says that no matter how Bright fashions himself in Alabama, in Washington, D.C., he'd be on the Democratic team.
"He is trying to run as a conservative," Love says. "I think he will show his true colors once he's elected — or if he's elected to Congress."
But Bright says voters should not count on him to do Speaker Pelosi's bidding, since he calls himself an "ole stubborn Southern boy."
New Southern Dems Appealing To Old South
Birmingham attorney Sid MacAnnally, a student of Alabama politics, says this new batch of Democratic congressional candidates in the South is tapping a political nerve. In this, he says, they recall successful Democrats of old.
"We had Southern Democrats who came across as very conservative — never would have been challenged on family issues or traditional issues," MacAnnally says. "And that's the way these new Democratic candidates are aligning themselves."
The challenge for Love is to hold on to the Republican base that Bright is so actively courting.
But not all voters are biting. Brad Linville is a local funeral director and self-proclaimed staunch Republican from the town of Tallahassee. He says he's still undecided.
"As far as Bobby Bright, the man — if anybody can change me, he might do it. I'll be honest with you," Linville says. "I think he's very conservative and [has] all the values that all us Republicans like to hold true to. And that's what turned the South Republican, those values."
But Love says on Election Day, the other names on the ballot will favor him.
"I think having Sen. McCain running for president, Sen. Sessions running for re-election, Jay Love the next one down — as opposed to Barack Obama, whose views are out of touch with the average Alabamian — Bobby Bright is going to have to defend why he wants to run on that ticket," Love says.